On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.
Matthews, Furman and Richard S. Cohen.
In State v. Ragland, 198 N.J. Super. 330 (App.Div.1985), we affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence. On March 29, 1985, the Supreme Court granted defendant's petition for certification and summarily remanded the matter to us solely for reconsideration of the directed verdict issue in light of State v. Ingram, 98 N.J. 489 (1985), and State v. Collier, 90 N.J. 117 (1982).
Defendant argues that the trial court's instructions to the jury with respect to the charge of possession of a weapon by one previously convicted of a crime directed a verdict of guilt on the charge, thereby violating his right to a fair trial.
A jury charge must adequately set forth the elements of an offense. State v. Green, 86 N.J. 281 (1981). In considering the propriety of instructions given the jury, the appellate court must review the charge in its entirety; reversal of a conviction is warranted only if the instruction in its entirety proves to be misleading or prejudicially ambiguous. State v. Hipplewith, 33 N.J. 300, 317 (1960). In reviewing a charge, an appellate court must determine whether it conveyed the essential elements of the offense to the jury in a comprehensible and complete manner. State v. Hale, 45 N.J. 255, 264-265 (1965), app. dism. and cert. den. 384 U.S. 884, 86 S. Ct. 1981, 16 L. Ed. 2d 1001 (1965).
The right to trial by jury in a criminal case has been recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a right to be "scrupulously protected from encroachment or impairment. . . ." State v. Simon, 79 N.J. 191, 199 (1979). As such,
the Court has recognized that the jury's verdict must be guarded against any "untoward interference" from any source, including that of the court, State v. Collier, 90 N.J. at 122, and consequently, a court may not direct a verdict against a criminal defendant, no matter how compelling the evidence. Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, 516 n. 5, 99 S. Ct. 2450, n. 5, 61 L. Ed. 2d 39 (1979); 90 N.J. at 124. Even though a presumption of prejudice will arise from a directed verdict, however, that error will be considered harmless error when viewed in the context of the entire charge to the jury which otherwise properly sets forth the applicable law. 90 N.J. at 123.
In this case, after that portion of the bifurcated trial which dealt with the substantive charges against defendant, the trial court set forth the elements of each of the crimes defendant was alleged to have committed and carefully noted that
[S]ince the State has made these charges against the defendant, it must bear the burden of proof throughout the trial of establishing the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Before the defendant can be found guilty by you, you must find that each element of the offense, as I have defined it for you, is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof is on the State. It never shifts. It remains on the State throughout the whole trial of the case, and no burden with respect to proof is imposed on the defendant. I have already told you he is not obliged to prove his innocence, and this is so because a person charged with a crime is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And this presumption of innocence abides with him throughout the trial, so that when you go from the bar of the Court to the jury room to deliberate you enter that jury room with the presumption of innocence still protecting the defendant. The presumption of innocence is only wiped out if and when you unanimously reach the conclusion that the defendant is guilty of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt.
Similarly, during the second portion of the bifurcated trial, the court instructed the jury about the reason for the bifurcation and reread the previous charge. The court further instructed the jury that the presumption of innocence still applied to defendant as did the State's burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The State presented no new evidence on the possession but moved into evidence certified copies of defendant's prior convictions. Thereafter, the court reminded the
jurors of their function as fact finders and instructed them on the elements of the crime ...